SciTech

How it's made: planes

You ever wonder how planes work? Like, it’s strange, right? You board one, close your eyes, and suddenly wind up in another part of the world, without a single inkling of knowledge how you got there. Unless you’re one of those heathens who looks outside the window on a flight, in which case I don’t know what to say to you. That’s not real, the plane isn’t moving, I swear they figured out teleportation when we weren’t paying attention.

And that means that your intrepid sports edi- sorry, esteemed news journalist had to dig into the dark and seedy underbelly of the airplane manufacturing industry. What shocking secrets is Boeing hiding from us? Find out more in today’s edition of

HOW! IT’S! MADE!

Ideally, you want to start with a design of an airplane, sort of like those outlines you always skip when told to write an essay. While it may work for your Interp project, it gets significantly harder when you’re operating many ton of steel and aluminum — but aspiring aerospace engineers are encouraged to try to shimmy together a hunk of metal and get it in the air.

Those designs usually take quite a bit of effort to make, and some people even go as far as to go to college for that stuff. Personally, I don’t get the appeal — I didn’t go to college to play school. Either way, these nerds run the calculations to make sure that the plane actually goes into the air (allegedly) instead of just sort of wandering around on the runway like a sad imitation of a car. After making a graphing calculator do a large quantity of computations, the engineers put together some semblance of a blueprint, snort enough caffeine to jump start a horse’s heart, take it to the technicians, and get approved to try it out.

See, in the years since Alan Turing shocked the world with Tetris during World War II, computers got really, really good at simulating things, especially things that we’re honestly too lazy to try ourselves. Specifically, a computer can estimate basically what happens when you take your airplane and try to make it fly. The engineers and technicians will then spend more time making sure those simulations are running correctly, and that the information from those simulations are actually being used. This is the meat and potatoes of the airplane design — the stuff that keeps the plane in the air and not in the ocean or a field in Kansas or something. With a gauntlet of tests being run that would make Iliano’s autograder blush, the engineers finally figure out if their plane will fly. Once air-ready, it’s time for the fun bit — making it!

Specialization really wins when it comes to airplane design — it’s one of the reasons that after decades of history, the vast majority of American Aerospace runs through Boeing for civilians and Lockheed and Northrop for the fun stuff. Those three companies are really, really good at making finicky bits that keep you alive, and their ability to just have whole departments with the job “make that one screw for my plane” is part of that. Aircraft manufacturers hand off their designs to various shops across the country to produce, usually with a significant amount of oversight to prevent anything goofy from happening on the plane. The machining is actually not that bad — at this point everything has been measured and remeasured and mapped out beyond insanity, and while mistakes can always happen, things should be okay.

It’s at this point that, like a bunch of kids with their Legos, a bunch of engineers put together all these little pieces into an actual functional plane. Well, I say “put together” — more “press a button that takes the fun out of things and does it for you.” It’s the least interesting thing these days, ever since they stopped putting elbow grease and spit into it, but after some magical robotic actions, a shiny new airplane is sitting in a hangar somewhere in a flyover state, ready to carry a few hundred cramped, uncomfortable passengers from Middle of Nowhere Tennessee to No Clue Indiana. It’s the miracle of birth — a beautiful thing!